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A’s first win of 2021 was led by the players who were struggling most

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The win was a relief, but it was even more exciting because of who drove it

Los Angeles Dodgers against the Oakland Athletics Photo by Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Even when the Oakland A’s opened the 2021 season with six straight losses, they at least had a few things go right. There are a lot of players on a baseball team, and a 9-2 loss still means somebody drove in a pair of runs and some pitchers got enough outs to end the game, or else it would still be going.

Indeed, the A’s roster wasn’t full of 26 struggling players. A handful of hitters have been locked in all along, at least in terms of how hard they’re hitting the ball, and a few relievers have quietly slipped in a scoreless inning between all their teammates’ meltdowns.

But as any 0-6 record requires, there were plenty of slumps mixed in. A few of the highlights, with their numbers entering Wednesday’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers:

  • Rotation: 28 ip, 28 runs, 25 Ks, 11 BB, 7 HR, 41 hits
  • Yusmeiro Petit: allowed all 4 inherited runners to score
  • Adam Kolarek: 22.50 ERA, no scoreless outings
  • Matt Chapman: 2-for-19, two soft singles, 9 Ks
  • Elvis Andrus: 1-for-21, 0 BB, double in first at-bat of season
  • Mitch Moreland: 2-for-16, no extra-base hits

That’s not a complete list of every bad thing that’s happened, but it’s the bulk of it. Every starting pitcher got beaten up the first time through the rotation, averaging a run per inning overall and not quite five frames per game. One of their most trusted bullpen escape artists let all his inherited runners score, and their new groundball lefty gave up homers to his first two batters (though Kolarek was already settling in since then).

Meanwhile, one-third of the lineup was doing nothing at all, including two bats who were supposed to be engines in the middle of the order. Not only does that mean no production from those individuals, but also an auto-out or two in the middle of any prime rally opportunity because of lineup placement. (Add in the catchers and it’s four lineups spots that were total zeroes for nearly a week, and we’re still waiting to get our first hit from a backstop.)

On Wednesday, everybody on the above list had a good day, and perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Oakland finally won a game, 4-3 over the defending World Series champions in extra innings.

It began with the pitching. For the first time this year the A’s allowed fewer than five runs in a game, and it was only their second time under eight. Jesús Luzardo started and pitched into the 6th, gutting through a couple rallies and a tough Dodgers lineup to allow just two runs. It was easily the best performance by an Oakland starter so far, at least in terms of results.

Luzardo got an assist from Kolarek, who escaped the starter’s final jam with only one inherited runner scoring — and that was due to a trick play by Los Angeles to exploit a defensive shift, not any fault of the pitcher’s.

Meanwhile, the lineup got key contributions from almost everyone who’d been silent before, beginning with Chapman homering in the 7th for Oakland’s second run. They hadn’t been able to cash in on any rallies to that point, scoring once only due to Ramon Laureano’s speed and instincts, but Chapman stepped up to add another tally to the board — especially important in a game so close that it went to extra innings. And he didn’t just prey on a middle reliever, but rather went deep against reigning Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer.

And Chapman wasn’t done. In the 9th, with the A’s trailing by a run and down to their last chance against All-Star closer Kenley Jansen, he drilled a sharp single to lead off the inning. The next batter reached too, then they got bunted over, and Chapman eventually came home on a sac fly. Out of three runs scored in regulation, he created one on his own and sparked the rally that resulted in him crossing the plate with another.

And who knocked in Chappy with that critical tying run at the clutch moment? None other than Andrus, who had exactly one good result in 24 plate appearances up to that point, and zero in his previous 23 tries after opening the year with a double. With one out, a runner on third, and no force at any base, all he had to do was make non-popup contact to get the run home. He came through, with a liner to center that was just deep enough to get the job done.

The throw from the outfield actually beat the runner, but it takes a catch and a tag too and Los Angeles couldn’t convert in the heat of the moment.

With the game headed to the 10th inning, both clubs got a free automatic runner at second base. Oakland called on Petit to strand their “inherited” runner, a feat he’d performed so often the last three seasons (76-for-109) but failed to accomplish in his first two tries this year. This time he induced a couple harmless flyouts and then ended it with a strikeout.

In the bottom of the frame, the A’s built on their free runner to make it first and third with one out. Moreland came up and lined the ball to center, to a place where the result didn’t matter — if it lands it’s a hit, if it’s caught it’s a sac fly, and either way the lead runner scores to walk it off. Moreland is here to be a run producer in the middle of the order, and he fully accomplished his mission in this crucial at-bat.

Let’s revisit that slump list, and how they did Wednesday.

  • Rotation: 5⅓ ip, 2 runs, 6 Ks
  • Yusmeiro Petit: stranded auto-runner in 10th inning
  • Adam Kolarek: retired both batters he faced
  • Matt Chapman: 2-for-4, HR, 99.1 mph avg EV, scored half team’s runs
  • Elvis Andrus: game-tying sac fly in 9th
  • Mitch Moreland: walk-off RBI single in 10th

And that’s all without mentioning defense, which had also been an unexpected problem early on. Chapman made a great play at third, and generally looked more like his normal Platinum Glove self after an uncharacteristically shaky start. New callup Seth Brown added a game-changing highlight in left field, and the whole club avoided being charged with any errors.

What a difference a day makes in a one-week sample size! It’ll take more than one win to erase the initial six losses, both mathematically in the standings and also in terms of proving that any of these players are really busting slumps and settling in. But it sure was beautiful to see all of them get started on the same day.